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Sammus Talks ‘Pieces in Space,’ Nerdcore Politics, and Inspirations

An interview with the Ithaca rapper about her latest record

/ October 12, 2016

Photo by Zoloo Brown

Sammus is Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, and her upcoming album Pieces in Space – out now on Don Giovanni Records – is a most excellently timed document of our current moment. Originally inspired to produce beats by video game soundtracks and Kanye West, the sixth year Cornell PhD student seeks to make incisions with her work wherever she can, especially for marginalized people fighting for vast freedom.

“Song about Sex,” the second single off the album, expresses the pain and joy having a body that’s often drowned in the attacks of institutions of power. “This is a song about sex in which I do not condemn women / For the realities in which they are living,” she sings on the chorus. As the United States prepares for a presidential election that has devolved into an attack on migrants, people of color, and most recently women – specifically white women – the track speaks to how we must condemn oppressive institutions while never shaming oppressed people for having to navigate those institutions.

We should not be forgetting / We should be forward living / You should be forewarned we can’t afford to keep on forgiving.” –Sammus, “Sex About Sex”

Sammus has requested that the song below be posted with a trigger warning as the lyrics deal with sexual assault.

I spoke with Lumumba-Kasongo about her history as a musician, her reality as an artist who urges us to think about the complexity of blackness and feminism, and why she gets mad when people say they don’t like her genre but they like her.

VICTORIA RUIZ: When did you first start making your own beats?

ENONGO LUMUMBA-KASONGO: I never learned how to read or play music formally but I played around on the keyboard and guitar a lot as a kid. I started making beats on a family vacation the summer before my senior year of high school, after my older brother taught me how to use the beatmaking software Reason on his MacBook. I spent the entirety of the summer making videogame inspired instrumental beats that I hoped to eventually use in a video game or cartoon. I used to draw a lot of anime-inspired pictures and hoped to create a cartoon or video game series one day. After hearing Kanye West for the first time towards the end of my senior year in high school, I began making more traditional hip-hop beats using the software GarageBand, and I now use Logic. 

You use a lot of video game and futurist imagery, and you’re able to make it fresh and meaningful in the present.

I always loved the music and imagery of video games so it’s been fun playing around with these things in order to tell my story. But I have sometimes struggled with my decision to inhabit the character of Samus, the beloved heroine of the classic video game Metroid. I think that for people of color there can be a tension in repurposing white characters to tell our stories. The question always comes up of why we shouldn’t just invent our own characters rather than inhabiting the stories of those who already have significant cultural cache. I finally found peace with my decision after dropping a Metroid inspired EP in 2014 that tells the story of Samus from my perspective. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they listened to the project because they love Metroid and as a result learned about important black figures like Mae Jemison, whom I reference in the second song of the EP. In the process of re-inventing Samus, I think I’ve been able to politicize people who would otherwise never have had any critical engagement with issues that Black women think about. Although I’m frustrated when I hear things like, “I don’t like rap, but I like your music,” it does suggest that my use of video games and futurist imagery offers an entry point for listeners to start thinking about blackness and feminism in complex ways. I hope that my work will one day be seen as a contribution to the world of Afrofuturist art.

You are releasing a book along with your new album on Don Giovanni. In the wake of artists releasing visual albums and photo collections, why did you choose to include the supplemental releases?

The book is called “pieces in space | rhymes + reasons” because it will contain all of the lyrics for the album as well as the meanings behind each song. Since I began releasing music as Sammus in 2010 it has become so important to me that my music makes sense to those I care about the most. Because I speak to so many different audiences, I never want to make assumptions about where my listeners are coming from; so whether through annotating my lyrics on rap genius, or releasing a book regarding the meaning of each song, I want to make sure people have the context they need to understand my music. The new album is called Pieces in Space partially because while the words were written in as much of a perfect vacuum as I could create – eventually they have to be released into the universe. This book is an attempt to at least partially guide a narrative that will inevitably become reinterpreted one thousand times over.

You call into existence a lot of identities. Your music can easily be labelled “political,” but how do you feel about that?

I think when I first started making music I would have shied away from framing myself as a political artist, although I might say that I had “political songs.” Part of that aversion would likely have been due to the misguided notion that speaking about the personal is not just as deeply political as discussing systemic oppression. Through the process of releasing several albums as well as performing in a variety of different spaces, I’ve begun to see myself as a political artist. Seeing some of the ways that my music resonates with people who look like me or care about the same issues, I’ve come to appreciate the very act of speaking honestly about my experiences. When I talk about trimming the last remnants of my relaxer in “1080p” for example, it is as much about a personal decision as it is a recognition of a unique experience of black girlhood and womanhood. As philosopher of science Ian Hacking talks about in his essay Making Up People there is a politics of naming certain groups and their characteristics as being significant – although he talks about this making up of groups in terms of things like medical classifications, I extend it to mean that any act of naming people and calling their identities into existence is deeply political. Calling into existence the identity of black girls who are nerds is political. Talking about video games as someone who doesn’t look the way gamers have traditionally been presented is political. Making my own beats in a landscape that still positions women as technically inferior is political. Finally, as I mentioned, I think my focus on making music that is accessible, if not directly through the construction of the song than through the use of annotations, reflects a certain political mindedness. Particularly as a member of academia, I see the ways that dense writing is often used as means of gatekeeping and rendering the knowledge of marginalized and often working class people as inferior. I think rejecting those ideas of access makes me a political artist.

Calling into existence the identity of black girls who are nerds is political. Talking about video games as someone who doesn’t look the way gamers have traditionally been presented is political. Making my own beats in a landscape that still positions women as technically inferior is political.

What are some your inspirations?

From a musical perspective, most of my inspirations are people I started listening to as a kid. Daft Punk and Björk were among some of the first musical artists that I ever began to love independently. I would also say that my brother was a huge musical inspiration to me. As a black kid who grew up listening to rock music, taught himself how to play the guitar, and eventually started a band my older brother taught me that I didn’t have to subscribe to anybody’s ideas about what a black kid should and shouldn’t do.

Kanye West also ranks among my biggest inspirations because he first showed me that any aspect of blackness is okay to share in the context of rap, and more importantly that the term genius is loaded with race and class assumptions. I would also say I’m inspired by many of the artists on Don Giovanni Records – Moor Mother, Downtown Boys, Izzy True, and Aye Nako, among others. These are artists who use their platforms to say something – a choice that is necessary but can be really difficult when sometimes you just want peace.

I’m also inspired by my boyfriend who is a fiction writer and the author of a young adult series about kids of color called Blacktop. Lastly, my parents inspire me daily. They are both professors whose professional careers focus on the betterment and independence of African countries.